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How Terror Threatens to Transform Sweden

One of the world’s most generous refugee destinations is about to learn whether its worst peacetime attack will prove a tipping point in setting immigration policy.

For now, Swedes are making a vocal show of defending their open and inclusive society following Friday’s terrorist attack, which police say was probably carried out by an Uzbek man sympathetic toward Islamic State and whose residency application had been rejected.

As thousands gathered in Stockholm on Sunday for a celebration of “love,” people hugged, left flowers, heard loud music and observed a minute’s silence to remember the dead. The gathering was also supposed to serve as a message to politicians.

For Asa Arko Qvartfordt, a 51-year-old social worker, Sunday’s demonstration was about making sure Stockholm doesn’t fall “hostage to fear or hate.” Peter Sandstrom, a 28-year-old who’s training to join the army, wants the country to pull together, “regardless of who we are.”

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven on Sunday called on the opposition to unite and join the minority government in coming up with better ways of preventing further acts of terror. He underscored the need to use the “collective force of Swedish democracy.”

But the calls for unity come at a time when Swedish politics is unusually divisive. The finance minister is under pressure over proposed tax changes while the government’s asylum policies are feeding the popularity of the country’s most outspoken anti-immigration party. In 2015, close to 160,000 asylum seekers were drawn to Sweden, more per capita than any other western European nation.

Friday led the world into a bloody series of attacks in which scores died. Back-to-back bombings at two Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday killed more than three dozen people in the deadliest assault on the country’s Coptic Christian community in years. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for that attack.

Al Shabab, a jihadist fundamentalist group, said it was behind another attack at the weekend in which a suicide bomber rammed a mini-bus as it targeted Somalia’s new army chief, leaving at least 16 dead. In neighboring Norway, the terror alert was raised following the discovery of a suspect device in central Oslo. Just days earlier, the U.S. ordered a missile launch in Syria in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack.

For Sweden, which had largely been spared such scenes of carnage, any political tension ensuing from Friday’s act of terror would come at a time when the minority government faces an opposition that has threatened to abandon the country’s traditional consensus-seeking approach to lawmaking.

Above all, it could inject new vigor into the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration party that’s now the third-largest group in the polls. Its rise in popularity is already forcing the mainstream opposition to reconsider a pledge never to collaborate with the party.

“The politicians have invited hate,” Richard Jomshof, its party secretary, tweeted in the wake of the attack.

Disagreement on how to integrate the immigrants Sweden has allowed to stay has already led to a deadlock in parliament. Swedish unemployment is the highest in Scandinavia, at about 7 percent, but jobless rates among immigrant youths are much higher.

What’s more, the opposition is threatening to call a vote of no confidence unless the Social Democrat-led government withdraws planned tax increases on workers and businesses, money the administration wants to use to finance more welfare, which includes paying for its asylum programs.

How Sweden handles its immigrants will ultimately determine how stable Scandinavia’s biggest economy is in the future, according to one of the country’s leading economists.

“A failed integration means that the social and political risks in a society increase and that frustration can be a driving force for extremism,” Robert Bergqvist, chief economist at SEB AB, said by phone. But “I’m not sure we would have prevented this act of violence with a better integration,” he said.